Bobby Fischer and the missed combination

12/17/2006 – Iceland. A week ago. The TV station Ríkisútvarpið RUV broadcasts two hours of live chess. At the end of the game Icelandic master Arnar Gunnarson commits a blunder that allows his opponent Bragi Thorfinsson to mate him in one move. Nothing remarkable so far. But then comes a call from a viewer to suggest a spectacular win for Arnar. A voice from the past.

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Here's a thought: pity that we are not all Icelanders. They have a weird language, and are basically living on a volcanic rock. But they have unlimited hot water (from thermal springs) and hours of live chess on television. Like last Saturday, more than two hours of it. With the Icelandic masters Arnar Gunnarson and Bragi Thorfinsson playing a rapid chess match.


The host of the Icelandic TV chess broadcast


Bragi Thorfinsson and Arnar Gunnarson face off in the studio


The commentators, with GM Helgi Olafsson on the left.

The show was staged by Ríkisútvarpið RUV, the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service, which is an independent public service broadcaster, formally owned by the Icelandic state. You can watch the entire broadcast in good quality streaming video at the following links:

The show is fun to watch, even if you cannot understand more than the occasional syllable in the expert commentary accompanying the broadcast. Here is what transpired in the fateful first game.

Thorfinsson ,Bragi - Gunnarson,Arnar [C50]
Icelandic TV, 09.12.2006
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 d6 4.d3 Be6 5.Bxe6 fxe6 6.c3 Qd7 7.0-0 Nf6 8.b4 a6 9.a4 Be7 10.Na3 0-0 11.Nc4 b5 12.axb5 axb5 13.Na5 d5 14.Bg5 Bd6 15.Re1 h6 16.Bh4 Nxa5 17.bxa5 b4 18.Qb3 Qb5 19.Bxf6 gxf6 20.c4 dxc4 21.dxc4 Qc6 22.Nh4 Kh7 23.c5 Be7 24.Qxb4 Bxc5 25.Qb3 Bd4 26.Rac1 Qd7 27.Qa3 Qd6 28.Qf3 Rxa5 29.Qh5 Rg8 30.Qf7+? Rg7 31.Qxf6 Ra2? [31...Ra8!] 32.Rf1 Re2 33.Qf3 Rd2 34.Qf6 Re2

Black seems to be offering a repetition, but White wants more. 35.h3? Rxe4. White is now in terrible trouble and goes for a swindle: 36.Rc6. Arnar Gunnarson spent quite some time contemplating his reply, which is obvious: 36...Qxc6, to which Bragi Thorfinsson replied instantly: 37.Nf5.

With his last move White is threatening mate in one, the trap being 37...exf5?? 38.QxQ. A careful watching of the video replay shows what then happened: Arnar Gunnarson took hold of his king and probably actually moved it to g8. Then he replaced it and played 37...Qd7 instead, to defend against the mate. Bragi Thorfinsson protested to the arbiter and Arnar was forced to move with the piece he had touched: 37...Kg8 (??) 38.Qxg7# 1-0.


Bragi protesting that Arnar had touched his king. You can watch
the key scene starting from around minute 47 of the video broadcast.

This incident would not have caused a great stir, if there hadn't been a remarkable follow-up. After the broadcast had ended the main analyst Helgi Olafsson got a call from none other than Bobby Fischer, who lives in Iceland and had been following the game. Bobby said he had a comment about the about the final position. He told Helgi that Black could have won the game with a spectacular combination that includes a double check and a discovered check.

Fischer's combination: 37...Rxg2+! 38.Kh1 (White cannot retake because of 38.Kxg2 Rg4++ 39.Kh2 Qg2 mate) 38...Rh4!! 39.Qf7+ Rg7+ (discovered check!) 40.f3 Rxh3 mate. [Click to replay]. As we can see, He may be inactive and living reclusively, but He hasn't lost His ability to spot beautiful combinations when they appear on the chessboard.

Addendum: some of our readers sent in additional lines in the combination, e.g. 37...Rxg2+ 38.Kh1 Rh4!! and now if instead of 39.Qf7+:

  • 39.f3 Rg1+ 40.Rxg1 Qxf3+ 41.Rg2 Rxh3#;
  • 39.Nxh4 Rxf2+ 40.Kg1 (40.Nf3 Rxf1+ 41.Kh2 Rxf3–+) 40...Rg2+ 41.Kh1 Rg1+; 39...Rg7+ 40.f3 Rxh3#.

Incidentally, Arnar Gunnarson won the second game with white and in the third was able to clinch the match by actually capturing his opponents king in the furious final blitz phase.

In the above picture White has just played Kb2-c1?? in game three, and Arnar is about to capture the king (the black king is off centre and not displayed by the sensor board). The final sequence is at around 1h 59min on the video replay.

Addendum: Jan S. Berglund of Tromsø (Arctic Circle) thought that victory in the match went to wrong person. "It is clearly that the last move is an illegal move acording to the new chess rules. The king is captured and the clock is pushed. The person without his king could claim the victory!" Other readers concurred. But the final game was not rapid chess, where this may hold, but a five minute blitz playoff. In Blitz you can and do capture the enemy king to claim victory. The final sequence can be seen in the video at 2h 0min 20sec. and is replayed at 2h 2min 50sec, with the players discussed exactly what happened. Most illuminating – you just have to learn Icelandic.

Many thanks to Karl Thoroddsen, who provided us with the story and the links.



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